FEW people have felt the impact of the Digital Age
on their profession more acutely and painfully than
Alberto Cassio, for years one of Bangkok’s top photographers whose skills kept him in constant
demand from advertising agencies, magazines and private clients. His work commanded fees of more than $1,000 a day, allowing this amiable Italian to enjoy la dolce vita right here in Thailand.
But it wasn’t to last. Alberto’s fortunes plummeted almost overnight with the launch of smartphones whose built-in digital cameras offered an amazing array of options and capabilities. In one cruel swoop, they heralded a new era in photography – and simultaneously the demise of traditional photographers with their heavy reflex cameras and lenses, and bulky lighting equipment. Alberto and others like him were suddenly out of a job.
During much of the 1980s and 1990s, Alberto and his partner, the well-known landscape and homes photographer Luca Invernizzi, operated a business that matched the growing need for quality images in Thailand perfectly. Their set-up included studios for still-life and modelling assignments, an extensive photo library called Photobank, which stocked their images and those of other quality photographers, as
well as directories of more than 2,000 for-rent photos. The pair were also very much ‘photographers-for-hire,’
taking on countless freelance jobs, and charging international rates. What they had created was an almost
unassailable business proposition.
“We could give them what they wanted and charge 10-15,000 baht a photo – sometimes even 20,000 baht – and it would still be a third or even less than doing the photo shoot by themselves.”
Born and raised in Turin, Alberto studied pharmacy. “Not for a single day did I want to be a pharmacist. I studied it because my father wanted me to,” he says candidly.
While working on his thesis, he headed to Asia, visiting Indonesia, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. He was instantly impressed by this part of the world and knew he wanted to stay long-term.
National service back home beckoned, however, and Alberto had to postpone his plans. He ended up in an army camp in southern Italy. “I left Bali for Bari, the only town in Italy with absolutely nothing to do.”
me they were waiting to be paid for their last flight, but I’m sure the money never got to them.”
His talent as a photographer had already been recognised, and he reckoned he could make a living from selling his images.
He was joined a year or so later by Luca, the son of a famous portrait photographer in Turin and friend since the age of 16. Seeing the opportunities here, they plotted their joint business strategy.
“We were really good buddies, and shared everything,” he recalls. “In our early days in Bangkok, we rented a large house in Ruamrudee and turned one of the rooms into a studio. By using 500-watt bulbs and large black acrylic sheets for reflection, we could create great still-life shots.”
Their makeshift methods worked a treat and clients quickly came
knocking on their door.
“Back in the 70s, they were only three other recognised photographers
in Bangkok - Boonchu, Paul Montri, and Shrimp. And Luca and me.”
One of their first clients was Huge, an advertising agency headed by veteran ad man Ron Spaulding. Assignments with other agencies
followed, including campaigns for Ogilvy & Mather, Lintas and Ted Bates, all needing first-class photography for their top accounts.
The workload was heavy and because of the shortage of good
photographers occasionally resulted in what could be considered
commercial conflicts. “I worked on campaigns for Coca-Cola and Pepsi at the same time,” says Alberto, smiling at the memory. “I also worked on the national airlines of India and Pakistan, again at the same time. And for a Nikon ad, I actually used a Canon camera.”
He also regularly undertook photo shoots for magazines like Living, Look East and Dichan as well as in-flight publications for many Asian airlines. Supplying photos for annual business reports was another lucrative income source.
Luca, who sadly passed away four years ago, was left to focus on cultural and historical topics. His legacy is a catalogue of more than 120 beautiful books, the majority coffee table editions featuring his outstanding photography. To this day, all are big sellers.
But change was in the air. The digital revolution was taking its toll elsewhere, and Alberto knew it was coming to Thailand.
“There was no longer any need for film; I saw it coming. So when I saw my market collapsing, I had time to prepare. As there wasn’t much hope
of turning things around, in 2005 I quickly closed Photobank.
“These days, you can buy a good photo for $10. I’d never sell mine for that amount.”
Alberto has scanned some 30,000 of his Photobank images, mostly on Thailand, and has an additional 20,000 on film.
What are his plans for this unique collection? “Good question,” he replies. “If there’s a bulk buyer, I’d sell the whole lot.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Alberto likes to reflect on Bangkok in the 70s and remembers the good times. “Everything was so cheap. Back
then, you could rent a house for 3,500 baht a month. Today, that same house would cost 35,000 baht – or more.
“You could even get cheaper accommodation like the Starlight Hotel on Sukhumvit 22. It cost just one dollar a night – and Luca and I shared a room! “Patpong was fun back then, and the marketing was very smart. Bars charged so little for lady drinks, and customers would buy lots of them. Now they charge 150 baht or even more for a lady drink, so it’s not fun anymore.”
Alberto doesn’t frequent the more upmarket nightlife haunts either after a nasty incident involving a well-known Thai model. “She got me to dance with her to make her boyfriend jealous. It was a set-up. And it worked – he punched me and then as I left he pulled a gun on me. I’ve never been back.”
Alberto has two sons, Stefano (23) and Lorenzo (16) from a past marriage. He visits Italy whenever he feels homesick “about once a year” but plans to stay in Thailand for the long-term. Most weekends are spent at the Varuna Yacht Club in Pattaya, where Alberto has been a member and
regular sailor for many years.
These days, he only takes photos for friends and keeps busy otherwise with his website www.photobangkok.com